Current Release Game Review- Batman: Arkham Origins
Batman: Arkham Origins serves as a prequel to developer Rocksteady’s Arkham series. Handing over the reins to new developer-Warner Bros Games Montreal- brings a new lease of life to the franchise; with an engaging narrative that feels right of a Batman graphic novel, a more robust detective mode and amazing set piece boss encounters (that are some of the most challenging in recent memory). Unfortunately the game is hampered by the mechanics imposed by previous entries in the series and a reliance on free flow combat over innovative gameplay.
T’was the night before Christmas:
Batman: Arkham Origins uses the games Christmas setting to great effect; Christmas lights illuminate the boulevards, Christmas trees decorate shop windows and as you ride in an elevator Jingle bells plays over the speakers. It’s very thematic and also helps to differentiate itself from the previous entries (Though I wish more had been done with the weather effects, strong winds blow in flurries of snow. But silently taking down enemies as a snowstorm rages would have made for an interesting set piece). The game looks great, showcasing much sharper graphics (with an impressive draw distance, I never once experienced pop-in). Gotham city is larger than in earlier games encompassing two islands (joined by the pioneer bridge), with seven distinct districts. The industrial district combines familiar locations-like the Sionis steel mill-while introducing new ones like The Final Offer (a run-aground ship serving as The Penguins base of operations), rundown warehouses and cranes dominate the landscape while the Diamond district gleams with storefronts and towering skyscrapers that house the rich of Gotham. The developers use the Neo-Gothic architecture to unify the visual design (placing the look of the game somewhere between the gritty realism of Christopher Nolan’s films and the more overt Arkham City). While there are a few visual inconsistencies (most notably Shiva’s’ character model looks significantly less detailed), the highlight of the visual design is the beautifully rendered and highly detailed character models that reflect the more grounded ethos of the games design. Warner Bros Games Montreal introduce new villains from Batman’s rogues gallery that mirror his physicality. The graceful and efficient attacks of Deathstroke (whose armour and weapons deteriorate as you battle) and the quick and lithe movements of Copperhead are perfectly conveyed through the games superb animations.
The voice acting in Batman: Arkham Origins is uniformly great. The stand-out performance is Roger Craig Smith in the title role, perfectly conveying a younger and more inexperienced Batman whose emotions break through his usually calm veneer. Brian Bloom portrays Black Mask with refined menace and Troy Baker adds a sense of dynamism to The Joker (While Nolan North’s portrayal of The Penguin doesn’t match the other excellent voice work, the character is more in keeping with the tone of the game than in the previous entry), everyone- from main characters like Deathstroke (voiced by Mark Rolston) to the supporting cast like Captain Gordon- add to the immersive audio presentation. The soundtrack is equally excellent. A brooding orchestral score (that recalls Hans Zimmer’s work in Batman Returns), it perfectly captures the darker tone of the narrative. The track ‘The night before Christmas’ (one of my favourite tracks in the game) uses sleigh bells to evoke connotations to classic Christmas carols: juxtaposed against the string instruments, church bells and cymbals the track feels decidedly ominous. Unfortunately not all of the music is as strong. Due to the demanding nature of the gameplay during boss battles, tracks like ‘Deathstroke’ and ‘Copperhead’ tend to fade into the background (I did appreciate how each of the tracks reflected an aspect of the character, Deathstroke’s music is very precise and regimented).
Batman year two:
Written by Corey May and Michael Wendschuh, the story perfectly captures the ethos of the graphic novels evoking comparisons to Jeph Loeb or Scott Snyder and features some of the strongest writing in a Batman game to date. Set on Christmas Eve during Batman’s second year in Gotham the story focuses on Black Mask as he attempts to consolidate the remaining Mob forces in Gotham and take over organised crime in the city. A taut detective thriller, the story is the highlight of the game.
This strong narrative is somewhat absent from the disappointing side missions, as is the inventive and fun gameplay that characterised the side missions in Arkham City. Gone are the engaging minigames, showcased best in “Cold Call Killer”. Players had to answer ringing payphones across Gotham and trace the calls (via a clever mini-game) as Victor Zasaz taunts the player. This particular side mission ends with a tense stealth segment, where if you’re spotted Zasaz will kill his hostages. This highlights how a range of gameplay mechanics can combine to create a tense and interesting storyline. Not all the side missions in Arkham City were this good; but unfortunately none of them in this prequel reach the same high points either. The most disappointing aspect has to be the anticlimactic boss battle with Lady Shiva, reducing her attack patterns to those of basic enemy types after the amazing set piece boss battles in the main campaign comes across as lazy. Missed opportunities abound, except for a brief cameo near the beginning of the game Calendar Man (who I expected to be a key figure) is completely forgotten. The developers could have further utilised the games thematic setting, introducing a side story where players discovered grisly Christmas tableaus across the city until you can track him down. Missions that tested something other than the player’s combat skills would have broken up the repetitiveness of the gameplay. Perhaps an ariel chase across Gotham’s rooftops utilising the excellent grapple and gliding mechanics as you attempt to catch Man-bat. The Riddler returns- under the new guise of Enigma- using his intellect to hold Gotham to ransom with blackmail. While I prefer the excellent riddles from Arkham Asylam, these puzzles are still compelling (many of them requiring specific equipment to complete them, much like in the Metroid franchise); it’s just a shame that some of the puzzles reuse assets from Arkham City.
One night to kill the Bat:
The genre defining combat and stealth of Batman: Arkham Asylum returns. Combat still feels as weighty and satisfying as ever, players use the square button to land blows on opponents chaining together attacks to increase the combo meter and using triangle when prompted to counter enemies attacks (Countering has been tweaked and using the triangle button to counter now needs far more precision than before lending the game a greater sense of challenge). Using gadgets during combat you can momentarily stun enemies with your Batarang or separate a group by using your Batclaw (switching between gadgets is simple, mapped to the D-pad). There are some new enemy types that make for an interesting new dynamic to fights- having to counter them multiple times before you break their defence- but overall this doesn’t change combat. The standout moments come from the superb boss battles which perfectly put all of your skills and reflexes to the test. Even on the normal difficulty setting I found these battles challenging (I died a number of times before I beat each boss), but never unfair. A lot of game developers could learn from the examples In Arkham Origins that boss fights don’t just have to be about spectacle, that you can create a boss fight that combines amazing visual production with great gameplay. The only problem I had with these battles was the restrictiveness of the environments, this made them feel a lot like arena battles whereas id have preferred to see a multi stage boss or one that required you to move around the environment (like the CG trailer implied), maybe even taking on two bosses at the same time.
Players use detective mode by pressing L1, this highlights enemies and useful objects in the environment . The biggest addition to the gameplay is the use of detective mode during key story moments, when examining crime scenes Batman can build a reconstruction of events based on the evidence he finds (this resembles Remember Me’s memory manipulation, with players able to scrub backwards and forwards through the crime to look for additional clues. The most memorable moment in the game for me came about a third of the way through when Batman has to decipher a crime scene at Black Masks safe house. With an amazing resolution, this player interaction drives the plot forward, helping the player feel more engaged with the story (so much so I found it difficult to put my controller down). While I appreciate the developers attempts to make players feel like a detective (even setting a number of side missions where the player has to solve a series of murders with this new mechanic), gathering evidence needs to be more involving than holding down the X button (more in line with L.A. Noire or Condemned: criminal origins), players could use a blacklight to locate fingerprints and pick up and manipulate objects in real time to find clues.
Players traverse Gotham by grappling from building to building with the R1 button and glide by holding X, while this feels as quick and responsive as ever the incorporation of a quick travel system (using the Batwing) is my favourite addition to the gameplay (even requiring players to tackle a series of puzzles to allow you to access each of the districts, these are comparable to the Radio Towers in Far Cry Three).
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the game for me was the fun and addictive multiplayer. Developed independently by English studio Splash Damage the multiplayer focuses on a three sided conflict, casting players as one of the Jokers Thugs, a mercenary working for Bane or Batman. This allows the developers to integrate both the mechanics of a third person shooter and the stealth based gameplay from the campaign. The one game mode available at launch-Invisible Predator- is a team based mode for a total of eight players that takes place on one of the four available maps. Matches last up to fifteen minutes as two teams of three attempt to capture and hold various points across the map, while reducing each other’s reinforcements (shown at the top of the screen) to zero. Batman on the other hand wins by completely filling his intimidation meter; done so by stealthily taking down enemies (this meter is reduced if he dies). The dynamic between the three teams is great and the mechanics work fluidly together, producing a multiplayer mode that feels fresh and original.
Following the current trend of persistent unlocks, players gain experience for completing objectives (as well as being awarded bonuses for keeping your captain alive, getting a killstreak or winning a match). This Experience increases your overall level; unlocking new weapons, gear and customisation options. Using in game currency you can buy consumable items from the Penguin’s black market; these act as one-time-use stat or bonus boosts that reduce damage taken from headshots or increase the total amount of experience you gain at the end of a match. It’s an interesting way to introduce perks to your game without them drastically altering the playstyle (in the same way that Titanfall is using burn cards). The third person shooting mechanics will feel very familiar to any fan of the genre. L1 brings the camera in behind you giving you more accuracy when aiming (but restricting your view making you less able to watch your surroundings adding a sense of tension to the hunter/hunted dichotomy of the multiplayer), while R1 fires you weapon. R2 uses grenades (more of which can be picked up on the maps with helpful ammo drops at various points throughout a match), triangle swaps your weapon, Circle snaps you into cover (where you can blindfire or aim) and holding X lets you sprint (this is a limited function shown by a grey bar on the bottom left of the screen) while double tapping allows you to evade as well as being used to interact with the environment. These core mechanics feel alot tighter than in the Tomb Raider multiplayer. Playing as Batman the mechanics are identical to the single player campaign, R1 grapples to a gargoyle, you use the D-pad to select your gadgets and L2 to enter Detective mode. One of the main draws of the multiplayer is being able to play as Bane and The Joker, these characters are unlocked at a certain point throughout a match when a number of criteria have been met. Both teams are funnelled to the same point on the map (the first player there assumes direct control of them) emphasising the need to work together. With a large amount of HP and powerful weapons playing as one of these two characters feels empowering and they can drastically alter the outcome of a match. Using in game currency you can buy consumable items from the Penguin’s black market, these act as one time use stat or bonus boosts that reduce damage taken from headshots or increase the total amount of experience you gain at the end of a match.
Because each gang level independently I think the multiplayer would have felt more engaging if players had to choose one faction to persist with (like MAG) rather than switching between them each round, fostering a greater sense of community. My only concern is the sustainability of the community and how long the servers will stay populated after the games release.
The perfect game for Christmas, while the strong writing and narrative make this the best entry in the series it also conversely helps to highlight the anaemic nature of the gameplay. With a wealth of in-game content and a fun and original multiplayer component it’s the developer’s over-reliance on Rocksteady’s blueprint that ultimately leaves the player with a sense of dissatisfaction.